Saul McLeod published 2008
Imagine yourself in the following situation: You sign up for a psychology experiment, and on a specified date you and seven others whom you think are also participants arrive and are seated at a table in a small room.
You don't know it at the time, but the others are actually associates of the experimenter, and their behavior has been carefully scripted. You're the only real participant.
The experimenter arrives and tells you that the study in which you are about to participate concerns people's visual judgments. She places two cards before you. The card on the left contains one vertical line. The card on the right displays three lines of varying length.
The experimenter asks all of you, one at a time, to choose which of the three lines on the right card matches the length of the line on the left card. The task is repeated several times with different cards.
On some occasions, the other "participants" unanimously choose the wrong line. It is clear to you that they are wrong, but they have all given the same answer.
If you were involved in this experiment how do you think you would behave? Would you go along with the majority opinion, or would you "stick to your guns" and trust your own eyes?
Solomon Asch - Conformity Experiment
Asch believed that the main problem with Sherif's (1935) conformity experiment was that there was no correct answer to the ambiguous autokinetic experiment. How could we be sure that a person conformed when there was no correct answer?
Asch (1951) devised what is now regarded as a classic experiment in social psychology, whereby there was an obvious answer to a line judgment task. If the participant gave an incorrect answer it would be clear that this was due to group pressure.
Aim: Solomon Asch (1951) conducted an experiment to investigate the extent to which social pressure from a majority group could affect a person to conform.
Procedure: Asch used a lab experiment to study conformity, whereby 50 male students from Swarthmore College in the USA participated in a ‘vision test.’ Using a line judgment task, Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven confederates.
The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the line task. The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven participants were also real participants like themselves.
Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last.
There were 18 trials in total, and the confederates gave the wrong answer on 12 trails (called the critical trials). Asch was interested to see if the real participant would conform to the majority view. Asch's experiment also had a control condition where there were no confederates, only a "real participant."
Results: Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view. On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials.
Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participant never conformed. In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.
Conclusion: Why did the participants conform so readily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar." A few of them said that they really did believe the group's answers were correct.
Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence).
Evaluation: One limitation of the study is that is used a biased sample. All the participants were male students who all belonged to the same age group. This means that the study lacks population validity and that the results cannot be generalized to females or older groups of people.
Another problem is that the experiment used an artificial task to measure conformity - judging line lengths. How often are we faced with making a judgment like the one Asch used, where the answer is plain to see? This means that study has low ecological validity and the results cannot be generalized to other real-life situations of conformity. Asch replied that he wanted to investigate a situation where the participants could be in no doubt what the correct answer was. In so doing he could explore the true limits of social influence.
Some critics thought the high levels of conformity found by Asch were a reflection of American, 1950's culture and told us more about the historical and cultural climate of the USA in the 1950’s than then they do about the phenomena of conformity.
In the 1950’s America was very conservative, involved in an anti-communist witch-hunt (which became known as McCarthyism) against anyone who was thought to hold sympathetic left-wing views. Conformity to American values was expected. Support for this comes from studies in the 1970s and 1980s that show lower conformity rates (e.g., Perrin & Spencer, 1980).
Perrin and Spencer (1980) suggested that the Asch effect was a "child of its time." They carried out an exact replication of the original Asch experiment using engineering, mathematics and chemistry students as subjects. They found that on only one out of 396 trials did an observer join the erroneous majority. They argue that a cultural change has taken place in the value placed on conformity and obedience and in the position of students. In America in the 1950s students were unobtrusive members of society whereas now they occupy a free questioning role.
However, one problem in comparing this study with Asch is that very different types of participants are used. Perrin & Spencer used science and engineering students who might be expected to be more independent by training when it came to making perceptual judgments.
Finally, there are ethical issues: participants were not protected from psychological stress which may occur if they disagreed with the majority. Evidence that participants in Asch-type situations are highly emotional was obtained by Back et al. (1963) who found that participants in the Asch situation had greatly increased levels of autonomic arousal. This finding also suggests that they were in a conflict situation, finding it hard to decide whether to report what they saw or to conform to the opinion of others.
Asch also deceived the student volunteers claiming they were taking part in a 'vision' test; the real purpose was to see how the 'naive' participant would react to the behavior of the confederates. However, deception was necessary to produce valid results.
Asch Conformity Video Clip
The clip below is not from the original experiment in 1951, but an acted version for television from the 1970s.
Factors Affecting Conformity
In further trials, Asch (1952, 1956) changed the procedure (i.e., independent variables) to investigate which situational factors influenced the level of conformity (dependent variable). His results and conclusions are given below:
Asch (1956) found that group size influenced whether subjects conformed. The bigger the majority group (no of confederates), the more people conformed, but only up to a certain point. With one other person (i.e., confederate) in the group conformity was 3%, with two others it increased to 13%, and with three or more it was 32% (or 1/3).
Optimum conformity effects (32%) were found with a majority of 3. Increasing the size of the majority beyond three did not increase the levels of conformity found. Brown and Byrne (1997) suggest that people might suspect collusion if the majority rises beyond three or four.
According to Hogg & Vaughan (1995), the most robust finding is that conformity reaches its full extent with 3-5 person majority, with additional members having little effect.
Lack of Group Unanimity / Presence of an Ally
As conformity drops off with five members or more, it may be that it’s the unanimity of the group (the confederates all agree with each other) which is more important than the size of the group.
In another variation of the original experiment, Asch broke up the unanimity (total agreement) of the group by introduced a dissenting confederate. Asch (1956) found that even the presence of just one confederate that goes against the majority choice can reduce conformity as much as 80%.
For example, in the original experiment, 32% of participants conformed on the critical trials, whereas when one confederate gave the correct answer on all the critical trials conformity dropped to 5%.
This was supported in a study by Allen & Levine (1968). In their version of the experiment, they introduced a dissenting (disagreeing) confederate wearing thick-rimmed glasses – thus suggesting he was slightly visually impaired. Even with this seemingly incompetent dissenter conformity dropped from 97% to 64%. Clearly, the presence of an ally decreases conformity.
The absence of group unanimity lowers overall conformity as participant feel less need for social approval of the group (re: normative conformity).
Difficulty of Task
When the (comparison) lines (e.g., A, B, C) were made more similar in length it was harder to judge the correct answer and conformity increased. When we are uncertain, it seems we look to others for confirmation. The more difficult the task, the greater the conformity.
Answer in Private
When participants were allowed to answer in private (so the rest of the group does not know their response) conformity decreases. This is because there are fewer group pressures and normative influence is not as powerful, as there is no fear of rejection from the group.
Allen, V. L., & Levine, J. M. (1968). Social support, dissent and conformity. Sociometry, 138-149.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Asch, S. E. (1952). Group forces in the modification and distortion of judgments.
Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1-70.
Back, K. W., Bogdonoff, M. D., Shaw, D. M., & Klein, R. F. (1963). An interpretation of experimental conformity through physiological measures. Behavioral Science, 8(1), 34.
Longman, W., Vaughan, G., & Hogg, M. (1995). Introduction to social psychology.
Perrin, S., & Spencer, C. (1980). The Asch effect: a child of its time? Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 32, 405-406.
Sherif, M., & Sherif, C. W. (1953). Groups in harmony and tension. New York: Harper & Row.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2008). Asch experiment. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html
Solomon Asch - Conformity
Conformity / Majority Influence
Asch Revision Notes for A-level Psychology
Minority influence, a form of social influence, takes place when a member of a minority group influences the majority to accept the minority's beliefs or behaviour. This occurs when a small group or an individual acts as an agent of social change by questioning established societal perceptions, and proposing alternative, original ideas which oppose the existing social norms. There are two types of social influence: majority influence (resulting in conformity and public compliance) and minority influence (resulting in conversion). Majority influence refers to the majority trying to produce conformity on the minority, while minority influence is converting the majority to adopt the thinking of the minority group. Unlike other forms of influence, minority influence is often thought of as a more innovative form of social change, because it usually involves a personal shift in private opinion. Without influential minorities challenging the majority view, there would be no new ideas or positive change in society. Examples of this are the Civil Rights movement in America and the suffragettes campaigning for votes for women.
Nearly all early research on minority influence focused on how the majority influenced the minority, based on the assumption of many psychologists that it would be very hard for the minority to have any influence on the majority. Moscovici had a different perspective, as he believed that it was possible for a minority influence to overcome majority influence. As a result, he conducted his own study on minority influence in 1969. Similar to Asch's (1951) 'blue-green' experiment, to see if a group of four participants were influenced by a minority. His research was important as it was one of the first studies to show that a minority was able to change the opinions of the majority. The research of Moscovici and his colleagues opened the door to more research on the subject.
Moscovici's (1980, 1985) conversion theory outlines a dual process of social influence. When an individual's views differ from the majority view, this causes inner turmoil, motivating the individual to reduce conflict by using a comparison process, leading to compliance and public acceptance of the majority position to avoid ostracism and potential ridicule. Therefore, majority influence is seen as normative social influence because often it is generated by a desire to fit in and conform to the group, e.g. Asch's (1951) line study. Conversely, a minority view is more distinctive, capturing attention and resulting in a validation process, where people carefully analyse the discrepancy between their own view and the minority view. This often results in attitude conversion, where the individual is convinced that the minority view is correct, which is much more likely to be private rather than public.
Majority influence occurs when people conform to certain beliefs and behaviours in order to be accepted by others. Unlike majority influence, minority influence can rarely influence others through normative social influence because the majority is indifferent to the minority's perspective of them. To influence the majority, the minority group would take the approach of informational social influence (Wood, 1994), or social proof. By presenting information that the majority does not know or expect, this new or unexpected information catches the attention of the majority to carefully consider and examine the minority's view. After consideration, when the majority finds more validity and merit in the minority's view, the majority group has a higher chance of accepting part or all of the minority opinion.
Although the majority group may accept part or all of the minority view, that fact does not necessarily indicate that the majority has been completely influenced by the minority. A study by Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret Neale (2005) shows that having the support from the majority leader could prove the critical factor in getting the minority opinion to be heard and be accepted. The support of a leader gives the majority more confidence in the merit of the minority opinion, leading to an overall respect for the minority. The strength of the "key people" (Van Avermaet, 1996) comes from the reputation built from their consistency of behaviors and ideas. Involving key people will benefit the minority view because people are more open to hear from others whom they trust and respect. In minority influence, a few influential leaders can influence the opposing majority to the minority's way of thinking. In the end, having a more supportive and active minority group could lead to innovative and better decision-making.
Size of minority
Moscovici and Nemeth (1974) argue that a minority of one is more influential than a minority of more than one, as one person is more likely to be consistent over long periods of time and will not divide the majority’s attention. They explain that a person may question themself: "How can they be so wrong and yet so sure of themselves?", resulting in a tendency to reevaluate the entire situation, considering all possible alternatives, including the minority view. On the other hand, two people are more likely to be influential than one person as they are less likely to be seen as strange or eccentric. More recent research has supported the latter due to the belief that a minority with two or more, if consistent, has more credibility and is therefore more likely to influence the majority.
Size of majority
The social impact model (Latané & Wolf 1981) predicts that as the size of the majority grows, the influence of the minority decreases, both in public and in private attitude change. The social impact model further explains that social impact is the multiplicative effect of strength (power, status, knowledge), the immediacy (physical proximity and recency), and the number of group members, supporting the view that a minority will be less influential on a larger majority.
Clark and Maass (1990) looked at the interaction between minority influence and majorities of varying sizes, and found that, like Latané & Wolf's findings, the minority's influence decreases in a negatively accelerating power function as the majority increases. This is reflected in findings that minority support should decrease considerably with the first few members of the majority, but additional members will have a marginally declining impact on getting people to conform to the majority position.
Similarly, Latané and Wolf cite Solomon Asch's work with "the magic number three". After his experiments, Asch concludes that when the majority consists of just one or two individuals, there is very little conformity. The addition of a third majority member dramatically increases conformity, but increases beyond three did not result in increasing amounts of conformity.
Minority influence is more likely to occur if the point of view of the minority is consistent, flexible, and appealing to the majority. Having a consistent and unwavering opinion will increase the appeal to the majority, leading to a higher chance of adaption to the minority view. However, any wavering opinions from the minority group could lead the majority to dismiss the minority's claims and opinions.Serge Moscovici and Nemeth (1974) argued that minority influence is effective as long as there is consistency over time and agreement among the members of the minority. If this consistency were lost, then the minority would lose its credibility. This can be the case if a member of the minority deserts and joins the majority, as this damages the consistency and unity of the minority. After this occurrence, members of the majority are less likely to shift their position to that of the minority. The key to minority influence being successful is not just consistency, but how the majority interprets consistency. If the consistent minority are seen as too inflexible, rigid, and unwilling to change, they are unlikely to influence the majority. However, if they appear flexible and compromising, they will be seen as less extreme and more reasonable, having a better chance of changing majority views.
Dispositional and situational factors
Research shows that individuals are more likely to listen to the minority and take on their ideas if they identify with them as being similar to themselves. Maass & Clark (1984) arranged for a group of heterosexual participants to hear a debate on gay rights. The results showed that the majority heterosexual group debating was easier for the heterosexual participants to relate to. Therefore, the minority homosexual group had less of an influence. Influence is more likely to occur if the minority (or majority) is part of our 'in-group' as we are more likely to be influenced by those who are similar to us. This research contradicts with Moscovici’s view that deviant minorities (or out-groups) are essential for minority influence to occur. In-group minorities are more likely to be successful, as they are seen as part of the group, and therefore their ideas are seen as more acceptable. On the other hand, out-groups are more likely to be discriminated, as they are not seen as part of the group, causing them to seem strange or unusual.
In addition, the decisions of others may affect the potency of minority influence. Asch (1952) conducted a study in which test subjects would be accompanied one of two "partners" during a series of questions posed to a group: a) a partner that would agree with the subject's minority view, or b) a partner that would be more extremely incorrect than the majority. Asch found that regardless of the role of the "partner", the fact that the consensus was broken – even if by just one individual ("the magic number one") – was enough to reduce conformity to a majority, and add credibility to the minority view.
Stories, evidence and verdicts
Most juries will elect a leader and then decide whether the voting for a verdict will be public or private. Using the Story Model Theory which suggests that cognitive processing of trial information is what drives jurors to mentally organize evidence in coherent, credible narratives, jurors will approach a verdict in one of two ways. The first, Verdict Driven jurors sort the evidence into categories of guilty and not guilty before deliberation. these types of juries feel the need to reach a verdict quickly, thus they may feel social pressure outside of the group to deliver the content in a time efficient manner. On the other hand, Evidence Based jurors will resist making a final decision on the verdict until they have reviewed all the evidence. These juries tend to explore their different options as a group and are less influenced by the social pressure outside of the group to reach a verdict quickly.
Minority influence in juries
The verdicts favored by the majority on the first ballot becomes the jury's final decision in about 90% of all jury trials, but the minority convinces the majority to change in about one out of every ten trials. If the majority was always right, we reach the conclusion that minorities (in a jury setting) do not have influence at all, this is not the case. Often when a jury is hung, it is usually because one or two jurors are holding our/resisting the influence of the majority. If these jury members are consistent with their views, it is likely they will be able to convince another member of the jury to also side with their view. As time goes on, more and more juries may change their vote in favor of the original minority. It is however, extremely important the original jurors are consistent and confident in their opinions. The more unsteady they appear, the less likely they will be able to conquer the majority.
Status and influence in juries
Members of a jury who have high prestige or status are usually more influential than members who are not. Members who are also of high socioeconomic status are also more likely to influential in the jury deliberation process. This is demonstrated by the correlation between private preliberation opinion and jury's final decision was .50 for rich members and .2 for laborers. However, in recent analysis, race and sex no longer determine influence in juries.
- Jury Size: modifying could influence group structure, representativeness, and majority influence; large juries are more likely to be hung, but small and large juries do not significantly differ in the types of verdicts reached.
- Unanimity: juries that do not have to reach a unanimous decision render their judgements twice as quickly and are less likely to be hung.
- Procedural Innovation: we can improve juries by making the instructions given to juries (prior to deliberation) clearer and more understandable. If the members understand at the beginning of the process what their requirements are, then they will be more efficient in their delivery of the verdict, and be more understanding of the process.
After a number of members have shifted their opinion to agree with the minority group, that minority becomes a majority. This is known as the snowball effect. When a minority creates social change in society, the new view becomes an integral part of the society's culture. This results in the source of the minority influence that led to change being forgotten, which is known as social cryptoamnesia. Minority influence can be successful if people can dissociate between the socio-cognitive activities of resistance that are induced by the source and other activities of resistance that develop from the content of the message. The process of dissociation is explained by social cryptoamnesia: what was originally considered different is gradually constructed as an alternative (Perez, 1995).
A person can be affected by minority influence whether directly or indirectly. However, if one is not aware of the influence, the minority ideas could be taken as one's own while disregarding where the original idea came from. Social cryptoamnesia explains that thoughts and ideas that challenge or shock are stored in latent memory without retaining the ownership of the idea. Ideas that were supposedly forgotten have reappeared in the person's mind as his or her own belief or thought. This major attitude change takes place when the zeitgeist has changed. In history, minorities have changed the attitudes of society, and the attitudes of society have changed the personal opinion of the majority in that society. Although minority influence may not affect a person immediately, one's beliefs and behaviors may change over time due to social cryptoamnesia.
Broadening views in organizations
By integrating the theory of minority influence in organizations, people may be more open to learning and change, benefiting the organization in the end.
Increasing diversity in the workplace
Not only is minority influence seen in social groups, but this type of social influence is also present in the workplace. Incorporating the concept of minority influence can encourage diversity and change in a corporate organization. Mannix and Neale (2005) performed a case study on a company that asked all the senior managers to mentor junior managers, preparing at least three younger managers to be ready and competent enough to replace the older managers. From this study, the firm realized that they were not achieving the extent of diversity that they intended. As a result, the company required at least one of the three junior managers in training to be a woman or underrepresented minority. This new requirement improved the intended diversity in the organization as well as the interaction between the senior manager mentor and the junior manager mentee.
Improving organizational values and culture
In another study by Mannix and Neale, yearly performance evaluations were completed for Hispanic, African American, and Asian managers. Their performance reviews evaluated the managers on less tangible measures related to leadership, an essential factor that is considered for receiving a promotion. Upon reflection of the company's performance evaluations, a senior leader suggested that the criteria on which managers were assessed was biased toward a "white, Anglo management style" (Mannix, 2005). As a solution, the leadership performance and promotion criteria of the performance reviews were revised. From this change and inclusion of minority influence, managers were able to learn from their strengths and weaknesses and change. Along with changing the criteria of performance evaluations, the organization itself underwent a change in values and culture.
Combined with majority influence
There is evidence to suggest that it is possible for minority influence and majority influence to work together. A study by Clark (1994) uses a jury setting from the film 12 Angry Men to investigate social influence. Some of the participants were asked to just read the arguments from one of the characters (who acted as the minority), while the other group were also told how he changed the opinion of the rest of the jury. Social influence was present in both groups, but was stronger in the group that was exposed to both the arguments (minority influence) and the knowledge that the jury conformed (majority influence).
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